For the Press

Best case scenario: Early broadband build-out leaves some rural areas prepared for online work and school

Posted May 4, 2020 

Two years after Gov. Jay Nixon created the Missouri Rural Broadband Initiatives and nearly seven years before Missouri would codify a rural broadband grant program into law, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative was building for the future.

“Moniteau (County) was the first place where we first put down fiber,” Co-Mo Connect Marketing Coordinator Gene McCoy said.

Fiber internet is what Sean Vanslyke of Semo Electric Cooperative in southeast Missouri calls future proof.

It’s glass about the size of a strand of hair. Internet providers splice the strands together and stretch it for miles. Because the internet signal is transmitted through the glass fibers via light, there is nothing faster on the market.

“There is nothing faster than light,” Vanslyke said.

Vanslyke is trying to bring fiber internet to six rural counties in Missouri’s Bootheel.

It’s a cost- and time-intensive endeavor, which makes the fact that Moniteau County had it almost before anyone else all the more remarkable.

And unlike other locations that sought federal or state funding, Co-Mo Connect was completely member-funded. The first residents to receive fiber internet didn’t live in cities. They were in the rural areas.

Since then Co-Mo Connect has been building its way into population centers and extending into other communities in its coverage area.

“They told us we want high speed internet and we talked to business leaders, school superintendents. We just worked with the community,” McCoy said. “They were like, ‘we are ready.’”

There is a sign-up goal associated with every Co-Mo Connect build out. A certain number in each area have to commit to using the service before the co-op will build. That doesn’t work for every area and every provider, but for the areas Co-Mo connect services, it does.

McCoy said a community generally needs a few things going for it to see a rural broadband project take place in its area.

“It takes an interested population, a willing organization to do it and it just takes community involvement,” McCoy said.

That can look different for each of Missouri’s jurisdictions, but when all those things align it can also result in some of the highest internet speeds in the state.

Broadband Now monitors rural internet offerings across the U.S. When its map of Missouri broadband capabilities is adjusted for one-gigabit speeds, the fastest available, Moniteau County stands out as having the second-most complete geographic coverage in the state.

Fewer than 2 percent of Moniteau County’s residents lack access to gigabit service. That’s better than than St. Louis or Boone counties. Only Cooper County, also served by Co-Mo Connect, tops it.

“We believe that high-speed broadband services modernize the lifestyle of rural America in a very positive way,” McCoy said.

And that was before COVID-19 forced almost all activities, from economic to educational, online.

In mid-March, California School District Superintendent Dwight Sanders was among the educators racing to set up distance learning for 1,400 students with little notice and little indication of when they could return to classroom learning.

Unlike other educators though, Sanders realized that their district was, for the most part, ready.

“I hear what other school districts are facing when the state says you will close your doors, but you still will provide distance learning,” Sanders said. “What that looks like for us looks totally different than for other districts who don’t have the internet access.”

Every Moniteau County sixth through 12th grader has a Chromebook laptop. When Sanders was getting the Chromebook program off the ground, the district surveyed its students and found 95% of them had access to the internet at home.

“So, we just tried to figure out where the gaps were,” Sanders said. “Financially there were some families that could not afford to have internet access.”

To meet that need, the district bought 50 wireless hotspots, which students were able to check out via school libraries.

In mid-March, when it became clear to Sanders that regular operations would need to be transferred online, he and other district administrators did the math. Of the 800 students in sixth through 12th grade, 750 have reliable internet at home. They distributed the 50 wireless hotspots they had on hand, and that was it.

Sanders said the district still relies on mailed packets of materials, but overall, the transition happened smoothly, largely thanks to the technological infrastructure that was already in place.

Moniteau County is now one of several rural hotspots for COVID-19, but the county with the highest infection rate is Saline County. There are 199 known cases of the illness in Saline.

Seventh- through 12th-grade students of Malta Bend R-5 School District in Saline County are also equipped with Chromebooks, but some are without in-home broadband.

Broadband Now estimates that 78.5% of people in Saline County have access to internet of at least 25 megabits per second, the federal minimum. Only 0.12% have access to gigabit speeds.

“We have a lot of kids out there and adults that don’t have the opportunity that the rest of the world has,” Malta Bend School District Administrator John Angelhow said.

When Angelhow surveyed his students, he said about 60% had access to internet at home, meaning 40% did not.

“They had to take a poll and that slowed down the process,” Saline County Northern District Commissioner Stephanie Gooden said.

Gooden can relate.

“We had to have people work from home ... but again there were some who did not have internet service so you had to take that into account and make it available,” Gooden said. “It just seems like a hurdle that we shouldn’t have to tackle in the century.”

She’s become a local champion for rural broadband in Saline County.

Although her formula may look different, she said she does have an interested populace and a willing organization, Marshall Municipal Utilities. If a series of grants and loans she’s working on with the utility provider are successful, 90% of the county could have access to reliable internet.

But that doesn’t solve the problem now.

Yet, Gooden and Angelhow are both optimistic that the current pandemic is exposing the necessity for aggressive expansion of rural broadband, so that one day all of Missouri might look more like Moniteau County.

“I think that is the silver lining in all this,” Angelhow said.

Originally published by The Rolla Daily News